Exploring Gotham City: An Illustrated Guide review

Have you ever driven by a major city, one with lots of tall buildings and cross-streets, and imagined what it would be like to swing between the skyscrapers, perch on an ominous gargoyle, and just survey everything around you?

I certainly have, and I can guarantee you the reason for that is because of all the Batman content I’ve consumed over the years.  Comics, cartoons, and video games, all of which have various scenes where Batman and his allies grapple through the sky across Gotham City.  It’s made me want to be able to do that in cities I live near and have visited, and even more it makes me want to explore the main streets and alleyways of Gotham.

As… long as I don’t get kidnapped, horribly disfigured, and/or shot.  That tends to happen a lot, you know.

But still, Gotham is one of those great fictional cities that– if you’ll forgive the cliche– has become a character in itself over the decades.  Park Row’s Crime Alley is as famous a street as real thoroughfares like Broadway and Rodeo Drive, and the best Batman stories are made all the better because the city feels like a real, living, breathing place.  People live there, work there, love there, and unfortunately die there, and even though it isn’t real, Gotham feels like a real city.

To help make the imaginary world of Gotham feel a little more accessible to us here in boring old reality, Insight Editions have released the delightfully fun Exploring Gotham City: An Illustrated Guide.  Written by Matthew K. Manning and illustrated by Studio Muti, the coffee table book-sized tome allows just that: exploration of Batman’s hometown, from the depths of the Batcave to the streets of the Narrows to the top of Wayne Tower and everything in between.

The book kicks off with a fun introduction written by “Bruce Wayne.”  It’s delivered in the style of a “Welcome to Gotham”-type message for visitors and new residents, with the city’s “most fortunate son” taking the opportunity to share about his family’s history with the city, and the city itself.  It’s clever, and a good take on Bruce’s true character: caring, understanding, and welcoming toward anyone who sets foot in Gotham, no matter who they are.  It’s followed by a brief memo from Lucius Fox to Bruce, the latter of whom replies with another message via sticky note.  It’s all illustrated like it’s laid out on Lucius’ desk, and just a fun way to start the book.

We’re then presented with a nice map of the city, which puts a lot of different areas on display.  Gotham itself is an island in the middle of a bay, with areas like Burnside, Wayne Manor’s location in Bristol Township (which Bruce mentions in his opening letter), and Brentwood Academy outliers on the main land.  I don’t know if I just haven’t paid enough attention in the past, or if Manning and Studio Muti took some liberties with the geography, but there are some landmarks that are further apart than I realized.  Arkham Asylum is toward the southwest corner of the city, while Blackgate is miles away on an island off the northeast shore.  The penitentiary is a short car ride away from GCPD headquarters, though, which is in close proximity to the Wayne Foundation, Wayne Industries, and the clocktower.  Other familiar landmarks include Amusement Mile, Crime Alley, and Robinson Park, and expected staples like Ace Chemical, the Iceberg Lounge, and even the Narrows.  It’s easy to read and appealing, though I would have liked a few other details to be included, like “To Blüdhaven” and “To Metropolis” directional indicators.  They aren’t necessary, but it would have been cool to recognize Gotham’s place in a larger world.

From there, the book focuses on 20 different locations around the city, each given a double-page spread of illustrations and information.  Manning’s writing is informative, while still being very easy to read, reminding me of the DK reference books I used to read as a kid.  Each section has the description and history of the respective location delivered through various caption boxes, accompanied by bits of trivia or more specific information about a chosen subject.  For example, on for the Old Wayne Tower, we get the history of the building itself, along with asides that talk about the architecture, the Court of Owls, and Zachary Gate, the Architect.

Which is another thing about the book that surprised me, in a good way: there are some fairly deep cuts throughout.  While I wouldn’t say the book is comprehensive in its material, in that we don’t get a cross-section view of every iteration of the Batcave, or a rundown of every single event that ever occurred in the city, Manning balances different aspects of the history of Batman in the text, as do Studio Muti.  The Batcave has several Batmobiles and Basuits on display, the latter of which includes costumes like the Hellbat and Justice Buster alongside the classic blue and grey (my personal favorite), the Detective Comics #27 suit with the wide ears and purple gloves, and the New 52 and Rebirth suits.  Arkham Asylum, meanwhile, has some short profiles on some of Batman’s most notorious foes, and Crime Alley has a “recreation” young Jason Rodd trying to boost the tires on the Batmobile.  There are fun little background details with more obscure and unexpected characters, such as Doctor Phosphorus overlooking a lake and Mr. Bloom hiding out in the Narrows, and fun little battles peppered throughout the various scenes.

That last point is related to one of my only real qualms with the book, in regards to consistency.  Specifically, some of the character work is a little odd, with the most egregious example being a little pop-up caption talking about Tim Drake, where he’s in his Robin digs.  Just a few inches over, though, you see him facing off against Talia, yet he’s wearing the (mercifully short-lived) brown and yellow suit from his time as Drake.  I could have gone the rest of my life without being reminded of that suit ever again, though I’m sure Studio Muti included it by request from DC, but still.  Damian has his own pop-up next to Tim’s and he’s also in the same battle scene, but wearing the same suit in both.

The next page has Nightwing standing atop the giant penny with a couple of ninjas pinned underneath, though, so all is forgiven.

That’s a minor complaint, though.  The art style and coloring are simple and pleasant, with good dimensions and pretty strong takes on each character.  Nothing is off-model, even in the background details, and the buildings, architecture, and landscapes look really good too.  While I’d bet the rendering and coloring is all digital, the book has a look that evokes colored pencils that’s pleasing to the eye.  It’s not overly glossy, yet not sloppy either.

Retailing for $29.99, it hits stores and other retailers tomorrow, March 16.  A fun resource that has plenty of personality, Exploring Gotham City would look good on a coffee table without breaking the bank.  If it proves to be a success, maybe we can take a trip to other fictional cities with future releases too.

SCORE: 8.5/10

Insight Editions provided a copy of this book for the purposes of review.

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